As Mary and I worked on our respective chapters for Mary & Me it became apparent that we’d had very different childhood experiences, most notably in regards to bullying. As our readers will remember, it was me, Mary Potter Kenyon, who endured bullying in childhood. I have heard from many readers regarding their own similar experiences. I wish I had the answer to bullying, but I don’t. What I do know is that we can each make a difference in our own little corner of the world. Contemplating the topic this weekend, I wrote the following essay:
I spent a lot of time around chickens as a youngster. My family lived on the outskirts of a small Iowa town and raised chickens for the eggs and meat. They were friendly fowl for the most part, except when we chased them around the yard for butchering or attempted to confiscate warm eggs from beneath the broody hens.
Not a big fan of my mother’s oatmeal, I’d sit on the front step of the chicken coop, holding my bowl full of the dreaded stuff, and flicking spoons of sticky oats behind my back. The sudden squawking and frantic beating of wings as the chickens scrambled for the treasured milk-sopped grain should have revealed my subterfuge, but Mom never said a word.
I’d play with fluffy yellow chicks when they escaped the confines of the pen, cupping them in my hands and letting them peck at the buttons of my shirts. I named my favorites, once befriending a chicken who let us hold and pet her. When our parents were gone to the grocery store, we’d let “Chickey” loose in the house, where she’d run straight to the living room chair and make herself at home.
Because of their close proximity, I also carry a vivid memory from a summer when the usual mild feather-pecking of my father’s flock heightened to cannibalistic proportions. I watched in horrified fascination as the laying hens circled their designated prey; one of their own. Whether one hen was more aggressive than the others wasn’t discernable, because chickens imitate each other. Soon all of them were pulling feathers and pecking until they drew blood, ultimately pecking their peer to death.
Dad read books about the disorder, asked questions at the feed store, and frantically tried every tactic suggested to get them to stop, to no avail. He lost several chickens before butchering the entire flock.
When I look back on the bullying I endured in elementary school, I think of those chickens. For whatever reason, I became the target of the class tyrant. Because her taunts were aimed at me, others soon joined in. She was relentless, always finding something wrong with me; my hair, my clothes, my entire existence.
When my nine siblings and I would gather at my mother’s house many years later, our reminiscing sometimes included stories of being bullied and our subsequent lack of self-esteem. My mother’s countenance would dramatically alter when our chatter veered off in that direction. With a pained look on her face, she’d insist that we were better people for having experienced the poverty that likely led to the bullying.
“You’re more empathetic, more sensitive, because of it,” she’d say. “Being poor didn’t hurt you. You all have good work ethics and know the value of a dollar.”
Being poor might not have hurt us, but the incessant bullying certainly did. You cannot be pushed, tripped, kicked, spit on, and informed daily that you are worthless, without some ill effects, no matter how wonderful your family is or how many teachers told you differently.
“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” I was taught, but the words did hurt. At some point, I began to believe the repeated taunts; I was ugly. I smelled bad. My clothes were even uglier. I was stupid. I morphed from a happy first-grader who loved learning, to a sixth grader who navigated the school hallway with books clutched tightly to my chest. I’d scurry to my destination, shoulders hunched, head down, avoiding eye contact. I couldn’t do anything about the clothing, but by golly, I wouldn’t be stupid. I retreated into a world of books and writing. By the time I escaped the bowels of hell parochial school had become, I’d lost any semblance of self-esteem. I was fortunate to escape the bullying when I transferred to a public junior high, where the friendship of one popular girl meant an acceptance I’d never experienced in elementary school.
Yes, we are the sum of our experiences, and it could be said I was driven to prove myself as worthy because of my grade-school experience. I excelled in school; acting in plays, participating in speech contests, writing for the newspaper, and joining several clubs. I even ended up as senior class secretary. I went on to graduate from college, no mean feat for an attendee of the inaugural 1965 Head Start government program designed to offer the preschool experience to low income children.
But the fact remains that to this day, some fifty years later, a chance meeting with one of those childhood bullies can transport me right back to that awful feeling of worthlessness. I consciously steel my shoulders to prevent them from slumping, and it takes every ounce of courage to meet the eyes that once looked upon me with disdain.
As a parent, I understand the reason my mother hadn’t wanted to be reminded of the bullying that most of her children endured. There wasn’t much she could do about it, except suffer with them. Even as a child, I soon realized that. The one time I arrived home in tears, knees and palms skinned because I’d fallen as I ran from a group of boys throwing snowballs at me, her eyes betrayed her own pain as she feebly tried to convince me that boys only picked on girls they liked. I didn’t come home crying again. I couldn’t bear to see my mother’s hurt, just as she couldn’t bear to be reminded that her children had once suffered at the hands of others.
I don’t have the answer to bullying. I only know that, having experienced it, I want my corner of the world to be filled with kindness. And maybe it’s that simple; beginning in our own homes, teaching our children kindness and compassion while emulating it ourselves. Kindness might be one of the most powerful and underrated agent of social change there is.
How can one person make a difference? By keeping in mind that every human being faces their own private battle. Showing compassion and love for even the most unpleasant and disagreeable among us. Speaking up when we observe an act of meanness. Remembering that words hurt and being careful with our own. It isn’t always easy. Sometimes our kindness is rebuffed. Our intentions misread. Avoiding gossip and mean-spiritedness can be difficult in a workplace or environment that thrives upon such banter. When the desire for approval from our peers supersedes our good intentions, it can feel like a risk, but it’s one worth taking. The future of our world depends on it.
Don’t be a chicken. Always choose kindness.
Galatians 5:22 “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,”